Why I am a Technical Writer

Having been in a bit of a lull, I recently asked those who follow me on Twitter what I should blog about. This post is in response to a suggestion from Peter Anghelides who replied: “Blog about why you became a technical author?

Which is a good a topic as any as, like many people in this industry, I certainly didn’t set out to be a Technical Writer, far from it.

For me Technical Writing combines two of my early interests, words and technology. Growing up I read a lot, and was lucky enough that my Dad used to bring a computer home at the weekend. BBC (Acorn) Micro, and later the first Mac Plus. I’ll happily admit to crafting documents (leaflets and the like) in every single available font on one page!

When it came time to leave school, Physics was my main interest area, and looking to add a technology slant I chose a course in Electronic and Electrical Engineering. In hindsight that was a mistake but it’s not something I regret. A few years later, with University behind me, I had converted my part-time job in McDonalds to a full-time job as I cast about for a ‘real’ job!

It was my Mum who spotted an advert in the local paper from a company looking to hire a “Technical Administrator”. The role was a mixed bag of tasks, largely supporting the small development team (all 12 of them) and after successfully negotiating a short writing test about how to use a flatbed scanner, I was soon put to work, writing documentation for their application. With little or no instruction or guidance I looked to those big clunky manuals that I had sitting on my desk, and it’s no small coincidence that the documentation I produced bore a striking similarity in style and layout to that of the Adobe FrameMaker 4.5 manual.

Towards the end of my time there, in 1995 if I recall correctly, I was sent on a two-day training course on how to create HTML pages with a view of setting up a company website. And so my journey on the internet began.

Having been made redundant I moved to England to Dr.Solomons where I gained a LOT of knowledge in a short space of time, working in a well organised, well run team. Some of the lessons learned there I now find myself echoing to my current team. A brief stint running the team also made me realise that I was capable of taking that step up.

The next role relied on my web expertise (a large part of my time at Dr.Solomons was focussed around web delivery of information) and also took me into another large company (was Tetra, now owned by Sage). A different working environment, and yet more to learn.

It was during those early years of my career that I realised that I’d fallen into a wonderful world where I could, if I so wished, dip my finger into a manner of different discussions and be involved with a large variety of people in different areas of a company. I’d speak with the QA engineers about issues with the product, talk to the Product Marketing team about how the product was being sold and who was buying it, the translation team were at the next set of desks and I’ve been lucky that most of the developers I’ve worked with have all been smart, friendly and helpful individuals. Even the grumpy ones.

My first step into team management was taken with some trepididation, but I’ve always trusted my own ability to learn quickly and with a little guidance (and one awful mistake) I think I’ve a good handle on how to get the best from a team of technical writers (for the most part, let them get on with it, they are more than capable without me!) and in the past couple of years I’ve learned a lot about selling our role to the company.

I’ve been lucky, both in the decisions made about my career (not all of which I’ve had a say in with two job changes brought about through redundancy) and especially in terms of the people I’ve worked with. I’ve learned so much from my colleagues, mentors and managers that I do sometimes wonder quite how I got where I am today.

And that’s why I’m happy to say that I’m a Technical Writer*, that I work in the field of Technical Communications and I don’t see either of those things changing any time soon.

* not that I do a lot of writing these days, my official title is Technical Information Manager, read into that what you will

11 comments

  1. I just kind of fell into it. Like an open sewer….

    It’s been good to me, and I’ve found it a very rewarding career so far. Worked with some great people on some amazing products, and certainly in the last few years, the scope of the role has broadened into something that is unrecognisable from what I was doing when I first started out. Technical writing is basically about helping to develop great products, and making things that people buy, and use, and like is hugely challenging, but a lot of fun. I think this aspect sometimes gets lost.

  2. A great post and one that I am sure will cause readers to reflect on their own careers.
    I’ve commented on another blog that my first technical writing role happened by accident when working in a furniture shop, tasked with assembling timber bunk beds without instructions and naturally documenting everything I did in case someone else had to pick up the task in my absence.
    Whilst going through old documents this week, I found a reference letter from a primary school headteacher describing the “step-by-step” instructions I had written for the use of “Apple Mac systems” while volunteering in the IT department. I must have been just 15 years of age at the time, so this predates the furniture shop story.
    As you state at the beginning of your post, many people fall into this career. Looking back on my life it almost feels as though I was born into it!

  3. Like you (and almost all the other authors I’ve met), I fell into authoring by accident, but was thrilled to find the variety it offered, whilst combining use of language with some techie research.

    Now that there are more technical authoring degrees, presumably there will be more people who make authoring a deliberate choice early on, which is great for them, but may make it harder for enthusiastic newcomers without relevant qualifications to join the profession.

  4. I’ve heard McDonald’s produces good managers, and I believe it now! 🙂

    My story – I was a college student in Indiana working on a chemistry degree. My third summer of school I worked in a lab that tested baby formula made at the attached processing plant. There was even a set of tasting tests for the many oils that went into the products there. Blech.

    After reading some of the manuals for the complex instrumentation, I realized there was an actual job behind producing that manual, and that the job was “technical writer.” I turned in my lab coat career dreams and said, I want to be one of those! My path was through graduate school, but I never would have learned about web pages if it weren’t for “View Source.” Ah, technology. Good times, the 90s.

  5. Brian – you are right, the product focus is something I’m sure my current co-workers are bored of me banging on about but it’s true!

    Cecily, I’ve already interviewed someone with such a degree, was quite interesting for me, however I’ve only seen one in 4 rounds of recruitment so they are still thin on the ground in my area.

  6. @Anne, I, too, was working on a chemistry degree. I decided that I would rather be editor of the university’s science magazine than take another class with a lab.

  7. Vishnu, I think the only negative is that many companies that employ technical authors only have a very small number of them. Consequently, the role can be marginalised, so there are fewer opportunities for team leading and management. However, I’m happy doing the actual writing, so the latter is not an issue for me.

  8. As Cecily says, the small number of technical writers in a company is usually the biggest source of frustration.

    Being able to sell yourself, and what you bring to the organisation, is important, otherwise you can end up in a “ticking the box” situation (where there is no real understanding of the benefits of good documentation, so it’s very much to ‘tick the box’ of having anything at all).

    Additional downsides can be a struggle to gain influence elsewhere, places YOU can see benefits but which others might be slow to realise. However on that front, there is a growing understanding of how important “information” is in the modern workplace, largely thanks to the internet.

  9. Interesting question!

    Six years ago, during my last faculty year, a lab teacher asked me a a colleague of mine if we were interested in a Technical Writing job for a company that creates software and hardware in the networking domain. I remember asking myself what’s a technical writer? For curiosity I went to the interview and a day later I was fired.

    At the beginning I found the job very complex and very fast I found out that I like the job.

    Two years later I combined testing with technical writing and testing was also interesting. With time I accepted new challenges, such as coaching and reviewing Professional Profile for a telecom company (200 people, supporting marketing department and QA engineers.

    I never thought to the weaknesses of being a technical writer.
    Vishnu, I think it depends on the personal skills of a technical writer. Why?
    In IT projects there are idle periods, when one should train himself if the employer does not have other tasks. For me it was easy because I can easily switch between tasks (not necesarily related to writing). You can always come with improvements within the company organization: internal procedure improvement, helping other departments, improve some templates and so on.

    You could say that a technical writer just writes documentation, but they why don’t you try to improve yourself and learn new things instead of thinking that you’re frustrated?
    I must disagree you related to the small number of tech writers in a company.
    I am the only technical writer for an international company with over 200 people, developing varied and complex solution in teh telecom field. I would say that most of the time I try myself to find new tasks. The thing is that PMs did not send to me project documentation for review and they received negative feedback from the clients.

    If the company would hire another tech writer we would not have enaough tasks to work 8h/day.

    Cecily there is another way to see this aspect. Make yourself indispensable and the role will be very important. It depends to you how the others see you. I agree if you are interested in a management role you won’t have the opportunity and in this case you should search another company with a large Tech Writing department.
    Best Regards

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